Unscripted

Handwriting Follows a New Line

Cursive

Quick question: Can you form a cursive Q? And if you—or your child—can’t, is that cause for concern? In an increasingly technology-based society, the future of penmanship is a growing subject of debate among educators. Generally, they agree that children should learn to write swiftly and legibly. But some question whether it’s necessary to keep teaching cursive writing, a staple of American elementary education for much of the 20th century.

Cursive isn’t on life support yet: Most American students still learn the art in third grade by tracing letters into workbooks. But lessons are getting squeezed into the curriculum in shorter segments, thanks to a greater emphasis on typing and the increased time given over to studying for standardized tests and other requirements, says Deborah Strevy, Ph.D., who teaches in UAB’s School of Education. In one school system near Birmingham, a third-grade teacher says she and her colleagues spend an average of 15 minutes, three days a week, on cursive, and students are still evaluated on penmanship.

Some research suggests that students who don’t build strong handwriting skills write less complex sentences and struggle to express their ideas. But UAB education professor Jerry Aldridge, Ed.D., argues that the more energy and time children devote to forming flawless script, the less opportunity they may have to develop ideas and experiment with written self-expression. In pedagogical research, he says, “the emphasis has shifted quite a bit from the formation of letters to what children have to say.”

Strevy sees cognitive benefit in the concentration and discipline that learning cursive requires. But she notes that other activities, such as knitting or playing a musical instrument or sport, can build those skills just as effectively.

The main benefit of cursive over print is increased efficiency. Connected letters result in quicker handwriting, which can lead to better lecture notes as a student moves into higher levels of education. But today’s students often type faster than they can write, even at an early age. Strevy says her son, who is left-handed, always struggled with cursive. Now, as a college freshman, he takes notes on his laptop or uses a voice recorder. For him, she says, typing is “a much more efficient way to get things down.”

Still, both Aldridge and Strevy say we should continue to teach efficient writing skills. In lieu of cursive, some schools now teach a form of connected, or italic, print, which doesn’t require children to learn a whole new pattern of letter formation. Connected print is standard in many European countries, and students have apparently not suffered.

As for the enduring beauty of prose penned in cursive? “There’s a lot of junk that looks pretty in cursive,” says Aldridge. “The content is what we need to focus on. If I can read it, I couldn’t care less what it looks like.”

— Susannah J. Felts

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